State offers guidance for student transfers

Parents wanting to transfer their children out of failing school districts in Missouri should act by Aug. 1, and if demand is higher than available classroom seats, their children may have to wait on a lottery draw before they can attend a new school, according to state recommendations released Wednesday.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued a nine-point guide on how to handle student transfers from unaccredited districts. That comes a week after a state Supreme Court decision upholding a 1993 law that requires unaccredited school districts to pay for students to transfer to nearby schools.

“It’s critical that policy be in place to ensure a smooth transition for new students transferring into accredited districts from unaccredited districts,” Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro wrote in a statement that accompanied the new guidelines.

Missouri currently has three unaccredited districts — Kansas City and the suburban St. Louis school systems of Normandy and Riverview Gardens.

The Kansas City district has about 16,600 students, Riverview Gardens has more than 6,000 and Normandy has about 4,600, according to education department data.

The 1993 law requires unaccredited districts to pay for students to attend other public schools in that county or a neighboring county. It applies not only to students currently enrolled in the unaccredited school district but also to thousands of other district residents who may currently be home-schooled or attending private schools.

The potential consequences have caused concern both among school districts losing the students — but still on the hook to pay for them — and among districts uncertain whether they can accommodate a sudden influx of students.

State law makes no exception for instances in which schools have no more room for new students. It simply says that the unaccredited district “shall pay the tuition of and provide transportation” for each pupil who chooses to instead attend an accredited district.

The Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis had sought guidance from state officials about how to implement the law, said deputy state education commissioner Ron Lankford.

“It’s nonbinding on our part — they can choose to do their own thing — but at least this gives a rational basis to try to explain a method to the madness,” Lankford said.

The state recommends that by Aug. 1, each school district adopt a policy for class sizes that falls within the state accreditation standards — 20-25 children per classroom in kindergarten through second grade; 22-27 students in grades 3-4; 25-30 students in grades 5-6; and 28-33 students in each classroom for grades 7-12.

If a school district doesn’t have enough space to accept all the students whose parents apply by Aug. 1, then the state suggests that districts use an admission system that gives all students an equal chance of getting in. A lottery draw would be one way of doing that, Lankford said.

Parents could maximum their chances by applying to several neighboring school districts. But depending on which school they attend, parents may have to drive their children there instead of relying on school buses. That’s because the state guidelines say that the unaccredited district must provide transportation to only one other district, though they could chose to do more.

Officials at the Missouri Council of School Administrators and the Missouri School Boards’ Association both said Wednesday that the state guidelines appear to be a reasonable way of balancing the students’ right to transfer schools and the schools’ ability to educate them.

But Kansas City schools Superintendent Stephen Green said there are still many details to be worked out before classes are scheduled to start there on Aug. 12.

“A lot of districts have already locked in their staff,” Green said. “That creates some challenges where we could have surpluses and (neighboring districts) could have a need for staff.

“The Aug. 1 (notification deadline) seems somewhat reasonable, but still doesn’t totally remove the complexity and the challenge.”

Green said only about 50 students had sought to transfer districts before the Supreme Court ruling, and no additional transfer requests have been submitted since then. That’s a relatively small percentage of the district’s total student population.

“Our goal is to make the issue moot” by regaining accreditation by 2014-15 school year, Green said.

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